LADIES IN BLACK
Director: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond
Running time: 109 minutes
Verdict: TWO STARS
Madeline St John’s elegant 50s coming-of-age novel about a clever young girl who is transformed by her summer job in a Sydney department store has been crying out for a movie “makeover” ever since it was published 25 years ago.
Ladies in Black isn’t it.
Bruce Beresford’s impeccably starched costume drama certainly looks the part – the vintage frocks are to die-for.
The casting is solid, too – so long as nobody wants to broach the awkward subject of Ryan Corr’s heavily accented Hungarian Lothario, or British actress Julia Ormond’s voluptuous Slovenian sophisticate. Were there really no European actors available to play the parts?
Where Ladies in Black falls down is its screenplay.
St John chose an arm’s length relationship with her country of birth – she spent most of her life in London.
But as an author, she observed the clash between conservative, parochial Menzies-era Anglo-Australians and cultured, worldly new immigrants with sharp wit, dry humour, and narrative restraint.
The film adaptation lays it on with the proverbial trowel.
Far be it from me to defend boorish 50s Aussie blokedom, but Shane Jacobson’s beer-swilling, horse-betting half-wit is a caricature.
As is Luke Pegler’s sexually repressed farm hand, Frank.
Noni Hazelhurst is a good enough actor to deliver her “clever girls” speech as if it actually means something, which only makes things worse when it becomes uncomfortably apparent that it doesn’t.
Characters and audience are both left hanging.
Thankfully, The Women in Black, to revert to St John’s original title, have a little more to work with.
Awaiting the results of her high school leaving certificate, Lisa (Angourie Rice) gets a temporary job on the ladies fashion floor of a department store that looks a lot like David Jones.
There she meets three women, each of whom represents an alternative version of womanhood to the one modelled by her own determinedly upbeat mother (Susie Porter).
Rachael Taylor oozes classic movie star appeal as the true blue, misunderstood beauty Fay.
Alison McGirr also struggles with the limitations of Australian male culture – in the shape of a husband who can barely look her in the eye.
Ormond’s character, a European migrant, sees the world from a very different vantage point.
Taking Lisa under her wing, she introduces her young charge to salami, red wine, literature, a world much larger than her own, and, well, fun.
Ladies in Black should have been a fascinating — and timely — snapshot of mono-cultural Australia, prior to the 60s sexual revolution.
But the characters behave as though they are stuck in some kind of handsome display case. The filmmakers fail to bring them to life.